"The Apostle Paul", c. 1657, Rembrandt van Rijn (National Gallery of Art)
The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity set in motion a transformation with little equal in the history of Western civilization. A movement that began within a small group of illiterate day-laborers in a remote corner of the empire took fire, and within four hundred years half the population of the empire had converted. Christianity became the official religion of Rome and, eventually, the most significant political, cultural, and social force in history.
Bart Ehrman, a leading authority on early Christianity, the New Testament, and the life of Jesus, explores the religion’s amazing trajectory.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Christianity’s Most Important Convert: The Apostle Paul
The conversion of Paul, the zealous Jewish persecutor of Christianity, is seminal to the establishment of Christianity. Examine the factors leading to Paul’s conversion, the transformations he brought to the early Christian tradition as a religion for gentiles as well as Jews, and the message he proclaimed in his missionary efforts to convert others.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Pagan Converts and the Power of God
Most of Christianity’s converts came from the Roman empire’s many practitioners of pagan traditions. How were pagans convinced to worship only the Christian God?
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. Factors for Christianity’s Success
The success of the Christian movement has been attributed to its miraculous nature, or the success of evangelistic rallies, or the conversion of Emperor Constantine, among other factors. Ehrman considers the role of its evangelistic impulse (people had to convert) and its exclusivist claims (it alone was the “true” religion).
3–4:15 p.m. Constantine and the Christian Faith
The conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. is one of Christianity’s seminal events. It went from being a persecuted minority religion to a major force in the Roman empire. It also paved the way for events to come. By the end of the 4th century A.D., Christianity came to be proclaimed the official religion of Rome, leading to the criminalization of other religious traditions and the persecution of nonbelievers.
Ehrman is the James A. Gray distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (Simon & Schuster) is available for sale and signing.